Growing up in the South, being black and being religious went hand-in-hand. I didn't know a single black person who claimed to not believe in God. (That is not to say that I went around to all of my black classmates with a clipboard and religious survey in hand, but take my word for it). Spirituality felt ingrained into my very core, in my DNA. 

And because of this, I do not remember a single moment in which I did not believe in God. I saw Him in the beauty of nature. I saw Her in the love of my family. So when my feelings for guys developed, around the same time that puberty hit, I took the most obvious route to me at the time: I tried to pray it away. 

It didn't work. 

As I fought harder and harder against my feelings for other boys, my spirit grew more and more distressed. Everything was telling me that my feelings were wrong. My dad preached against it from the pulpit. My only gay relative died of AIDS when I was three. And like most Christian families of the South, my immediate, extended, and church families were all overwhelming conservative about their beliefs of the Bible. 

In addition, I had to deal with homophobia that had nothing to do with spirituality. In the black community, there is an additional level of disgust and shame towards gay men. Black men are strong, masculine, tough. Black men aren't supposed to do anything that would damage that image. Dancing Ballet? Playing the Flute? Figure-skating? Not for my black son. A black man wearing a dress and makeup? Only done for laughs, i.e., "Madea", "Big Momma's House", and Sheneneh from the TV show "Martin". Even from a young age, I could see that the gay black role models were hard to find in the media. 

Ergo, family and church were no-gos. But I also couldn't talk to my school friends about it, at least not when I wanted to do so. I wasn't one of the lucky kids with a cell phone, and no one ever seemed to be logged into AOL Instant Messenger when I was in a crisis. And even if they were, how did I know that I could trust them with my secret? 

So, the torment continued. I cried and I prayed. I was well-known among my circles for the epic crushes on girls that were honestly induced by loneliness and perpetuated to hide my true identity. I watched everything I said, did, or even thought, because I didn't want to be found out. I wanted a change to come down from Heaven, hit me like lightning, and fix it all. 

Finally, after months of despair, a change did come. I realized that I couldn't change who I was and was not supposed to do so. Because of this, I felt peace within me that I cannot even begin to describe. If you have felt it, then you know what I mean. The moment I truly accepted myself for who I was and for who God made me, it felt well within my soul. 

Today, though I've long been out to friends, classmates, and coworkers, I'm still not out to my family, besides my older sister. Coming out will not only challenge their religious beliefs about homosexuality, but also their views on what it means to be a man in the black community. And though the gay black role models have become slightly more numerous than in the past, I still feel the pressure from my race to be masculine rather than to be me. 

But if my relationship with God is strong, if I know that I am as loved by God and created to be exactly who I am as they are, then what is it that I fear? 

Danny Jones is a musician, an artist, and an avid reader, who finds his greatest joy in both performing on stage and teaching music at the elementary and middle school levels. He formerly lived in Grand Rapids, but now resides in San Diego, California, where he attends an LGBT-affirming church called Missiongathering.